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War hero's life serve as a civics lesson

My uncle, Jack Richard DeWitt, earned the Army's second-highest decoration for combat bravery, the Distinguished Service Cross, and the next-highest, the Silver Star, and so many other honors that rather than list them all, I'll sum up his service record with this:

A few years after Uncle Jack and my father had both returned from World War II, a trooper pulled over my dad's car, suspecting he was driving drunk. The trooper looked at my dad's license and asked him if he was related to Jack DeWitt. When my father said he was his younger brother, the officer handed back his license and — this being the old days — sent him on his way.

"I served with Jack DeWitt," the trooper said, "and he was the best damn soldier in the U.S. Army."

So he was a war hero and, after the war, served long and well enough in the Army reserve to retire as a brigadier general.

He was also the kind of family man they used to make television shows about — calm, kind and solid beyond a doubt. He married my equally wonderful Aunt Anne, brought up five kids, and stayed married until he died last month at age 93.

Closer to home for me, Uncle Jack also helped my father through the Depression. While their father was on the road, looking for work, Uncle Jack held down a full-time job as a laborer at the Oscar Mayer plant in Madison, Wis. He put himself through the University of Wisconsin and still sent money home.

He was a generator of enterprise, founding and serving as senior partner at what is now the largest law firm in Madison. Lawyers in those days didn't specialize the way they do now, his co-workers told me, but he spent a good deal of his career in business law, basically helping deals to get done.

He was a full-fledged intellectual who, during a stint as a law professor at the U of W, put everything he knew about legal practice into a handbook that was to young lawyers of his state what the Joy of Cooking was to that generation's young homemakers. In retirement, he plowed through all 11 volumes of Will and Ariel Durant's The Story of Civilization.

But he also loved to stay up late telling stories and, even as a middle-aged Rotarian, could pound beers like a college kid. The songs and readings at his memorial service on Saturday in Madison were all common, unpretentious and, under the circumstances, brutally tear-jerking: Psalm 23, Will the Circle be Unbroken, and, as we filed out of the chapel, Vera Lynn singing White Cliffs of Dover, about the hope for exactly the kind of peaceful post-war life that my Uncle Jack managed to live. How could anyone keep from choking up? I wouldn't know.

Uncle Jack wasn't from Florida, obviously, and never set foot in our part of it. So why are you reading about him in your local paper?

It's not because I want to brag about my family, or not only that; I couldn't be prouder of any association. Nor is this another piece about the fading values of the so-called Greatest Generation, though when I heard taps being played at the service, it was hard not to think it was being played for an entire era.

No, I've taken so much trouble establishing my uncle's credentials as a patriot, business person, exemplar of family values and regular guy because some people will tell you those are conservative traits. And my uncle was a proud liberal, who spoke out against the red-lining of neighborhoods, who fought Realtors groups for veterans housing and donated generously to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

I don't want to stir up partisan anger because that's the last thing he would want and the opposite of the reason he believed what he did.

He didn't think government was the only way to get things done. The names of all the community organizations he was involved with would make another long, boring list.

But it was through government that the country ended the deprivation of the Depression, defeated Hitler, built the interstate highways and passed civil rights legislation. In those and in humbler efforts, right down to building local parks and schools, government provides a fair way for us to work together, my uncle believed, and make great communities and a great country.

Maybe I'm biased, but I think he was in a position to know.

War hero's life serve as a civics lesson 03/06/12 [Last modified: Tuesday, March 6, 2012 8:24pm]
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